Linguistic permeability in bilingual processing: Individual- vs. group-level analyses in Spanish-English bilinguals

Martohardjono, G. , Phillips, I. , Madsen II, C. N. , Otheguy, R. & Schwartz, R. G.

The Graduate Center, City University of New York

Two types of Spanish-English bilinguals were tested in an ERP experiment on a contrast in the two languages exemplified in (1) and (2) in order to investigate linguistic permeability during processing of Spanish (1a and 2a). In Spanish, but not English, absence of the complementizer (que/that) is ungrammatical.

1a. Qué hermana confesó Inés que había comido la tarta?
b. *What sister did Inés confess that had eaten the cake?

2a. *Qué hermana confesó Inés Ø había comido la tarta?
b. What sister did Inés confess Ø had eaten the cake?

In a first analysis, we grouped subjects by generation and compared ERP responses to que-less vs. que-full sentences. A significant N400 effect was found for first-, but not second-generation, suggesting reduced sensitivity to missing que for the latter. However, a second analysis, using linear mixed modeling to test predictiveness of individual speaker variables revealed generation to be non-predictive of N400 amplitude. Instead, current language use was a significant predictor for all subjects: increased English use results in smaller N400 amplitude to anomaly in Spanish. Our results show that a priori classification of bilinguals masks gradient cross-linguistic effects, and processing is permeable in all bilinguals depending on amount of language use.